An American Abroad

Archives for June 2015

Anne Frank’s Message to Sousse

Terrorists today carried out an attack in Sousse, Tunisia, where I lived from August 2014 to February 2015. Much like the March 18 attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, today’s slaughter was both an attack on specific human lives and an attack on the Tunisia’s economy and its fledgling democracy.

Terrorism is a worldwide scourge. It can happen anywhere, at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a train station in Kunming, China, or in a museum of Roman antiquities. Despite the horrendous bloodletting, the world is, by and large, a safe and wonderful place. As Anne Frank (who knew firsthand the effects of fanatical hatred) wrote in her teenage diary,

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

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But Anne Frank was not advocating that people wait passively for things to get better. Elsewhere in her diary, she wrote:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

The terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS, like the terrorism of the Nazis, is not born of strength. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak. Resort to it is a sign of desperation, not power. The people I met during my time in Tunisia know this deep in their bones. It doesn’t make terrorism less scary, since you can be killed just as dead by a weak man as a strong one. But it does mean that the terrorists won’t win in the end. They may and probably will score tactical “successes” here and there, but the ideology behind the terror is spent. Attacks like the slaughter on the beach in Sousse today are like tantrums thrown by children who realize that they can’t have their way. Those who commit them are not brave; they are cowards.

So to my students, colleagues, and friends in Sousse, I say take heart. You are strong. It is the terrorists who are weak.

At the Chess Records Studio

These are the back stairs to the musical history of Chicago and the world.

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In the 1950s, numerous blues and R&B legends walked up those stairs to this room, which back in the day was a recording studio.

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Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, The Moonglows, Howlin Wolf, James Cotton, Archie Bell & the Dells, Lonnie Brooks, Solomon Burke, The Four Tops, Percy Mayfield, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin climbed those stairs. And in that studio, they recorded the music of the Great Migration, the electrified blues that came out of Chicago in the 1950s. Then Chuck Berry came along, combined the electric blues with a country beat and and twang. In the Chess studio, he recorded “Maybellene,” one of the first and most popular rock n roll records:

Encouraged by Muddy Waters, Berry in 1955 brought to Chess Records a recording of his version of Willis’s tune[1] which he had renamed “Ida May” and a blues song he wrote “Wee Wee Hours”, which he stated was inspired by Joe Turner’s “Wee Baby Blue”. To Berry’s surprise, Leonard Chess showed little interest in the blues material but was enthusiastic about the commercial possibilities in a “hillbilly song sung by a black man”. Chess wanted a bigger beat for the song and added a bass and maracas player to the trio at the recording session. He also felt the titles “Ida Red” and “Ida May” were “too rural”. Spotting a mascara box on the floor of the studio, according to Berry’s partner Johnnie Johnson, Chess said, “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene” altering the spelling to avoid a suit by the cosmetic company. The lyrics were rewritten at the direction of Chess as well. “The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love,” Chess recalled. “It was the trend and we jumped on it.”

Ten years later, the rock musicians of the British Invasion came to Chicago to record at Chess, in an attempt to get the sound they had heard on American blues records. The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, among others, recorded there. The title of the Rolling Stones’ jam, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” was a reference to the Chess Records address.

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Though the building is now primarily a museum, the Stones still show up, as recently as 2014, to get the Chess sound. Some of the components of that sound, apart from the configuration of the studio room itself, were these two pipes, which rise a few inches from the floor by the back wall of the control room.

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Originally, the music being performed in the studio was picked up by a mic hanging high on the wall at the far end of the studio. It was tweaked in the control room and played through studio monitors. The sound then travelled down those pipes to the mics connected to the tape recorders, which were housed in a room under the control room. This gives Chess records their echo-y, live sound, the sonic texture you’d experience at a blues club.

Today, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is home to Willie Dixon‘s Blues Heaven Foundation and serves as a museum, concert venue, and school for young musicians. Some of the old recording equipment is still on site and provides an object lesson in how far recording technology has come in a half century.

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I was privileged to get a private tour of the facility from Willie Dixon’s grandson, Keith Dixon Nelson.

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Keith graciously allowed me to play his grandfather’s bass — quite a thrill for me.

The land adjacent to the studio is now a small park, with a stage for outdoor concerts.

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The site has also been acknowledged by the Chicago Landmark Commission.

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I went through a major blues phase in my twenties. I lived briefly in Little Rock, Arkansas and listened to a radio station there that played gospel by day and blues by night. I would sit up late listening, electrified by what I heard. Later that summer, I took a bus to Greenville, Mississippi to the Delta Blues Festival. The smell of the Mississippi mud baked hard by the sun mingled with the sounds of electric guitars and wailing harmonicas coming from the stage. I had an experience of synesthesia, where the music and the unique smell intertwined inside me. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Many of the musicians who performed there had come to Chicago and Chess Records decades before. Now they were returning to their roots. Now years later, after seeing the Chess studio, I felt like I had seen where those roots produced the blossoms that became the electric blues and rock n roll.

The Cove: Exemplar of a Neighborhood Bar

I’m particular about my bars. A good bar should be unpretentious. Welcoming. Not too loud but not too quiet. Old. Diverse in its clientele. A place where you can chat with strangers or sit quietly and read without being disturbed.

There aren’t very many places that meet all those criteria — which is one reason why I am not a big bar-goer. But there is such a place in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. It’s called The Cove. It’s located at 1750 E. 55th Street. And it’s got a great old neon sign out front.

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Inside, it’s got a classic long-rectangle layout, with a venerable dark wood bar running down one of the long walls.

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There’s another room of the same dimensions that’s accessible from the far end of the barroom. This gives The Cove room to seat a lot more people but doesn’t spoil the cozy feel of the bar itself. The other room has a mural that depicts local heroes (though the portrait of Barack Obama is almost unrecognizable).

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On the three nights I was there, the clientele seemed to be a mixture of neighborhood folks, U. Chicago grad students, down-dressed professionals and working-class Joes, men and women, old and young. Most bars I’ve been in are 90% one ethnic group or another. Not so at The Cove, where the mix over the nights I was there was about 50/50 black and white. There was an overall friendly, relaxed, welcoming feel to the place.

By the time I last left, it was dark out, the NBA finals had just concluded with a Warriors victory, and it was time for me to go. I took one last pic of the cool vintage neon sign and vowed to return when I could.

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Nicaragua 2008: Down the Rio San Juan from San Carlos to El Castillo

Following our miserable night on the Lake Nicaragua ferry, we arrived in San Carlos, a town our guidebook charitably described as “scummy.” Situated on the southeastern tip of the lake not far from the Costa Rican border, San Carlos indeed seemed to have nothing whatsoever to recommend it, except for its being situated at the source of the Rio San Juan.

As I shivered in the pre-dawn light and made inquiries about a boat heading downriver to El Castillo, Spencer set off in search of coffee. He brought back two small paper cups of watery lukewarm Nescafé into which had been poured several heaping tablespoons of sugar. It was vile, but I drank it anyway. It did nothing for my chilled, sleep-depraved state.

We found out that we could get passage aboard a riverboat that would leave in several hours. With nothing to recommend San Carlos to us, we made for the nearest hostelry we could find in hopes of getting a morning nap.

I don’t know the name of the place we stayed. I don’t know if it had a name. But it was as scummy as the rest of the town, complete with damp dirty beds, insects, and river-rot. It was built up on stilts over a filthy stagnant stream that slithered into the river at some point.

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It was actually colorful and cheerful-looking, so long as you didn’t peer too closely. Of course, we arrived on wash day; the clothes hanging everywhere hid things that I’d just as soon not see.

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Our room had a Sandanista slogan painted on its door.

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I slept fitfully, occasionally wondering what I had gotten myself and my son into.

We were here:

Near noon, we checked out and went back to the docks. Along with a couple dozen other passengers, 300 cases of beer, sacks of mail, some chickens, sheep, and a goat, we boarded the riverboat.

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At the appointed time, we shoved off and headed down the river and into the jungle.

We passed by jungle hamlets here and there, places marked by a dock and a few wooden buildings, but without roads. At some of them, we stopped to drop off a passenger or two, some beer, and a sack of mail.

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The day turned to night and we continued on, more slowly though. The boat’s searchlights cut a sliver of visibility down the river, but otherwise everything was black on both banks.

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It grew late. Finally, after about fifty miles, our destination was announced: El Castillo. The boat docked and we stepped out onto a dock shrouded in darkness. We could see no artificial lights anywhere. We struggled to get our luggage together in total blackness. We were here:

We wandered around until we heard the thrum of a generator and saw a few gleams of light coming from a two-story building with porches up and down on the front. It seemed to be a guesthouse of some sort, so we knocked. A middle-aged woman answered and answered yes to our question about beds for the night. We were delighted. She then led us up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and out to the porch, where two hammocks hung from the porch beams.

Spencer and I looked at each other, unsure and disappointed. But then the woman let loose a deep laugh — just kidding! — and led us back into the hallway and into a dorm-style room with real beds. Maybe showing us the hammocks first was just clever product positioning on her part, because by the time we got into our spare but clean bedroom, I was incredibly grateful just to have a mattress under my body, a comforter draped over me, and a roof over my head.

I fell asleep almost immediately, wondering what the jungle would have in store for us come the morning.

Nicaragua 2008: A Most Uncomfortable Night

After three days at the luxurious Hotel Colonial in comfortable Granada, it was time for us to begin the second phase of our journey. Our plan was to get a ferry across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos. There I would walk around the docks til we found a boat going down the Rio San Juan, talk or bribe ourselves aboard, and head out to the jungle settlement of El Castillo. This required a leap of faith on my part. I didn’t know for sure whether we could find a river boat — do you just hail them like taxis? — but I told myself that the last thing I wanted was a Cook’s tour where everything was precisely planned.

Little did I know that finding a boat going to El Castillo would be easy, but that passage aboard the ferry crossing the lake would be a very uncomfortable affair.

We found the lake dock in Granada from which the ferry departed and bought our tickets. I’d read that it was advisable to pay a little extra to get a spot on the upper deck of the ferry and to string a hammock there. I had no problem paying for a place on the upper deck, but in a fit of senseless economizing, I bought only ONE hammock.

What was I thinking?

I guess I figured that I would find a place to sit or lie somewhere on the ferry and that I would let my son luxuriate in the hammock. There had to be chairs, right? And probably an enclosed cabin to escape the elements in?

But no. There were no chairs, benches, or other accommodations. No cabins. Just steel deck-plating. We tied our lone hammock between a mast and a wall cleat and began the overnight lake crossing.

At first, it was pretty nice. We were thrilled to pass within sight of Concepción, the world’s most perfectly formed volcano, on the Isla de Ometepe.

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The afternoon sun still warmed our bones. Spencer read Heart of Darkness as he swayed in the hammock. We looked down — literally, that is — at all the people on the lower deck trying to find a place to sit where they would be sheltered from the sea spray amid the bicycles, motorcycles, and other cargo.

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We congratulated ourselves on the decision to buy upper-deck tickets. We saw people on our deck laying down and it really didn’t look so bad.

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Many of our deck-mates strung up hammocks and looked quite comfortable in them.

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Others on our deck found places to sit: not chairs, of course, but better than the metal deck plate.

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The sunset on the lake was so beautiful that at first I didn’t feel the approaching evening chill.

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Ah, novice-traveler hubris. By the time darkness fell, we were both getting cold. The steel deck seemed to suck the heat right out of my body. Although we weren’t getting drenched, we shivered in the mist thrown up by the boat as it plowed through the waves. By midnight I felt chilled to the bone, damp, tired, and miserable. I did take turns with my son in our one hammock, which gave some respite, but I felt so guilty about making him sleep on the deck plate that I took most of the time there.

From this wretched, sleepless night, I learned that you can never be too hot out on the deck of a boat at night. The lesson etched itself deeply into my mental library of travel wisdom. In later experiences with nighttime boat rides — for instance, my trip up the Ganges River in Bangladesh aboard a paddlewheel ferry — I made sure to pack warmer clothes.

And if I ever travel across a body of water with a companion, I will be sure to buy two hammocks.

Nicaragua 2008: The Perfection of Granada

Granada is located along the coast of the Lake Nicaragua, the world’s twentieth largest lake. It was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and claims to be the first European city on mainland America. In the first centuries after its founding, the city was witness to and victim of many of the battles with English, French and Dutch pirates for control of Nicaragua.

In more recent times, though, Granada avoided most of the violence of the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution in the 1970s and ’80s. Back in 2008, I found a city that had managed to preserve and restore much of its Spanish colonial architecture and its pleasing public streets and squares. I’m not alone in this observation. The story is told that when Pope John Paul II visited Granada, he was so charmed by the town that he told the people not to change a thing.

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When we first encountered this bandstand in a public park, it was empty as you see it here.

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But the next time we happened by, it was mobbed with people. A band played. Different couples took turns dancing in front of the crowd, not so much to show off hot dance moves as to have their time in the limelight. The audience approved.

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We headed down to Lake Nicaragua, not so much because we wanted to beach it, but because we wanted to scope out where we would be catching the ferry across the lake. It being a holiday weekend, many people were heading out for some sun and swimming.

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Two Years Old!

Today, June 9, 2015, my blog is two years old. What started out as little more than a convenient way for me to keep a personal online diary and to stay in touch with family and friends has grown beyond its original bounds. I’ve written 267 posts which have received 31,770 page views from 9,649 unique users in 135 countries and territories.* This is still small potatoes by big-blog standards, but nonetheless very gratifying to me.

In the two years I’ve been maintaining this site, I have written about my travels to 15 countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, Morocco, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, the USA, and Vietnam). It’s been an exciting journey for me — and I’m not done yet. In my very first post, I wrote that I wanted “to travel, to come to know Chinese culture from the inside, and to gain some perspective on my own culture by viewing it from afar.” Substitute “global” for “Chinese” in that statement and I think I’m doing that. Along the way, I’ve also written about books, bicycles, motorcycles, movies, terrorism, unauthorized public art, teaching, music and religion.

I’d like to thank everyone who has visited this site, encouraged me, commented, and given me ideas for what to do with it next. You rock!

* The countries and territories I’ve had hits from are Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, China, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Georgia, Greece, Germany, Guadeloupe, Guam, Guernsey, Haiti, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jamaica, Jersey, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Réunion Island, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zambia.

Here’s a map of my visitors:

Hit Map

Nicaragua 2008: Granada Signs

Looking back at my photos from this 2008 trip, I can see the beginnings of the same fascinations that still characterize my travel photography. Signs and graffiti, to name two.

Some of the signs for professional offices had a beautiful, simple elegance about them.

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Others were cheerfully cluttered with text and gave me the impression that you could obtain any kind of service within.

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And then there was this sign for a fried chicken joint, which amused me every time I passed by.

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I’m not sure, but I think this was a little love poem, a declaration of affection for one lucky Dario. But maybe some of my more fluent Spanish-speaking readers can set me straight.

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There were a lot of political murals and signs. And many, but not all, of them were in support of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party.

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This, below, was a popular political sentiment at the time. Still is.


Nicaragua 2008: La Catedral de Granada

The cathedral of Granada is surely the most photographed building in town. It’s impossible to miss. No matter where we were in Granada, we could see its cheery neoclassical yellow towers in the distance.

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The original church at this spot was built in 1583. But when the American filibuster and conqueror of Nicaragua, William Walker, came to town in 1855 and began his mad attempt to take control of all Central America. His troops destroyed that building and much of the rest of the city the following year. Construction of a new cathedral began in the late 19th century, but was halted several times due to lack of funds. It was finally finished in 1915.

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Because Holy Week preparations were going on, we were unable to get any further inside than the reception area just past the exterior doors. But there, taped to a wall, we spied this charming admonishment.


Even with my kitchen Spanish, I was able to understand this and appreciate its gentle humor. It says:

When you come to the temple and bring your cell phone, turn it off, because here you don’t need it to talk to God. The only phone you need to speak with God is prayer. Thank you.

Nicaragua 2008: Good Friday Parade

As night fell on our first day in Granada, we heard the sounds of a crowd and the buzz of a small engine coming from the street. I grabbed my camera and went out to see. The streets were aswarm with people. Considering their numbers, though, it was a pretty quiet affair. A long line of people passed quietly by us.

We saw the focal point of the evening toward the end of the subdued parade line. A wood and glass coffin, surrounded by flowers, was being carried atop a cart. The coffin was lit by spotlights powered by a portable gasoline-powered generator, which was sitting on another cart riding behind. Inside the coffin was a female department store mannequin which had been, shall we say, repurposed to resemble the popular image of Jesus: soft features, long curly locks, beard, white skin, and an almost effeminate countenance. Compounding the androgynous appearance was the fact that the figure was wearing a white lacy skirt. His (her?) body was streaked with blood-red gashes. Behind the coffin were two angels and a large cross draped with white linen.

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Not having been raised in a Catholic neighborhood, I wasn’t sure what was going on at first. Then it clicked with me that this was Good Friday, a holiday about which I had only a dim secular humanist awareness and understanding. I soon figured out that this parade was a reenactment of Jesus’ burial. I wasn’t sure what was cool to do. Could I join in the parade? Could I take pictures? I didn’t want to piss anyone off on my first night in Nicaragua, so for the most part I stood curbside and watched.

I was struck by the immediacy of the proceedings. This was not the abstract American Jesus; this was a bloody, mutilated likeness. It was the barbarous act of crucifixion made real. It wasn’t a priest saying “Jesus suffered and died”; it was showing, not telling. My son and I appeared to be the only gringos in the crowd. I felt privileged to be there.

Later that evening, when Spencer and I ventured out for a beer, we saw this figure (Mary? a local saint?) apparently waiting to be seated at the café.

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Strange big-headed blow-up dolls also circulated among the throngs of Good Friday celebrants.

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The religious procession by this point had given way to more secular concerns of eating, drinking, and relaxing. Strolling musicians came by and parked at our table for awhile.

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Tired from our travels, but feeling delighted and welcomed by the parade we had just witnessed, we then returned to the hotel and a sound night’s sleep.